India's Janadesh 2007: in a place where land means life, the landless rural poor march for justice.

AuthorHohmann, Skye

Protest marches are no rare occurrence in India. Since Mohandas Gandhi added the padyatra (foot march) to his repertoire of nonviolent tools with the 1930 Salt March to Dandi, leaders and activists across the world's most populous democracy have used long marches to draw attention to their causes. As a result, Indian politicians are used to this sort of mass action, and the sight of 25,000 people walking, even along the country's national highway, is not so remarkable. In an atmosphere of political indifference, little seems to change for the most marginalized in this country.


Would Janadesh 2007 be any different, I wondered, as my feet joined the march? Years in the planning, Janadesh ("the people's verdict") was conceived to bring unresolved land rights issues to the attention of the national government. Organized by the NGO and social movement Ekta Parishad (Unity Forum) and led by long-time Gandhian activist P.V. Rajgopal, Janadesh 2007 roused 25,000 landless peasants, members of indigenous groups, and marginalized farmers to pressure the government into undertaking land reform.

Janadesh 2007 began at Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, on October 2, and promptly vanished into the cloud of good intentions and general hype that marked that date, the anniversary of Gandhi's birth. As thousands of Dalits (groups once called outcastes or untouchables) and adivasi (tribal peoples) gathered for the month-long march to the capital, a national bank advertised its promise to bring "banking to the people" in Gandhi's spirit. Despite India's recent economic boom, wages often fall below the legal minimum, underemployment is the norm, and rural poverty is rife. As I looked at the front page advertisement, I considered the irony: 30 percent of India's population have nothing to bank.

Old Promises

"Land to the tiller" was promised to the "scheduled" (officially recognized) tribes and castes at Independence. Sixty years later, most of the country has yet to achieve land reform. Rapid urbanization, industrialization, and globalization have only added to the pressures on the rural poor. For many of the marchers, Janadesh 2007 represents a brave attempt to gain what their parents and grandparents were promised: arable land to support each family, fast-track courts to resolve land disputes, and a "single-window" system to replace the bewildering, time-consuming, and expensive maze of bureaucracy that currently oversees processing of land transactions.


Even at 9 a.m., it is 34 degrees Celsius (93 degrees Fahrenheit). The hot sun beats down on the marchers. Gulabia Devi walks proudly under her green and white flag, matching the slow pace of the woman ahead of her. The two north-bound lanes of the national highway are filled with columns of marchers, four abreast, five kilometers from end to end. The sparse traffic, mostly long-distance transport trucks, rushes by, unaffected by the closure of half the road, but locals line the curb, pinning their hopes on the marchers as they spend a full three hours watching Janadesh 2007 go past.

One day out of Gwalior, and Devi already looks tired. Her spotless sari is nearly threadbare, her sandals already worn thin. Despite...

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